Don’t Sign That Contract, Marriage is All about Love

Emily Yoffe, Slate’s bad relationships columnist, advises a reader not to sign a postnup. The questioner’s husband had seen to many of their neighbors getting screwed in divorce court, and did not want to live out his marriage being exposed to that threat. He asked his wife to sign a postnup giving her only 20% of the joint property, reflecting her expected contribution, instead of the 50% she was legally entitled to. He also wanted to keep the house in case of divorce, since he had fully bought it on his own before they married. He threatened to cut his risks and divorce her if she would not agree to sign it.

Yoffe explains to her that she should not sign it, since it promises her less than she is legally entitled to, and people should not consider the risks of marriage:

…your husband’s demands are ludicrous, especially given the fact that if you refuse the postnuptial and your husband becomes your ex, you will get a much larger chunk of his assets.

I hope your husband can wake up and stop treating his wife and child as depreciating assets he wants to get off the books. Maybe with help, he will realize that the damage he is about to do to the two people he should love most in the world is going to be incalculable.

So on the one hand her husband is wrong for paying attention to the risks involved in the relationship, and on the other hand, she should never give up anything of her promised cash and prizes in case of divorce. That would make marriage not profitable enough for her.

A realistic response would recognize that her husband should not have to expose himself to undue risk in exchange for investing in their relationship, and that given the unfairness of the legally mandated 50% split, and assuming she is committed to the marriage, there is no good reason not sign. Her refusal to sign actually confirms her husbands fear of exposing himself to the risk of being married to her, since she refuses to limit her options to divorce later. Yoffe says that this is a psychological problem, and probably her husband is already getting involved with someone else (it seems to be her habit to invent bad behavior to explain away men’s rational behavior). She oddly rejects his expressed rational explanation – the way he saw his friends getting screwed in court – and invents a silly explanation why he might otherwise want this marriage contract. More sane advice would encourage the woman to sign, as a way to ensure her husband that he can trust here. A reasonable response to the question would be along these lines:

Your husband is simply responding rationally to modern divorce law. You would not want to put yourself in a situation where you risk to much in case of divorce, so why do you expect your husband to take that risk? You should also need to realize that when your husband sees what his friends wives are doing to them, he asks himself how he can trust you. Signing the contract is the best way you can reassure your husband that he can trust you. If you do not sign, and especially if you do not sign for financial considerations, you are only signalling to your husband that you are a high-risk investment for him. Even though he loves you and has a child with you, it would be irrational to expect him to continue investing in you, when you cannot give him this basic reassurance, and instead you tell him that you need to keep open you option to profitably divorce him. Marriage is not about how much you take when you divorce, its about giving everything for the two people you should love most in the world. Let them know they can trust you, otherwise the damage you do to them, and to yourself, will be incalculable.

(Of course from a purely pragmatic standpoint Emily Yoffe’s advice is also wrong. Leaving all romantic consideration aside, she is probably better off going for 100% of assets during marriage+20% on divorce, rather than 50% of holding now., when they are relatively young and do not have significant assets. She will go for the 50% anyway, rather than risk getting only 20% in the future. This is all about the principle, not gross financial considerations.)

I hope this woman has many, many years as a single mother to consider the implications of her principled stand against acknowledging the financial risks and considerations of marriage. After all, marriage is only about the people you love.

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Emotional Capital

Rick Lavoie nicely presents a way to look at emotional state as something quantitative. Our actions affect our self-esteem, giving us more “emotional poker chips” for positive interactions, and costing us “chips” when things go sour.

Emotions obviously cannot be quantified with an exact value, but they can still be seen as a volume which goes up and down. The lack of an exact measurement does not stop us from understanding the basic dynamics. We can talk about money the same way, also without needing any exact numbers. A parallel lesson in basic money management would sound like this: “Everyone has some money in the bank. Some have more, and some have less. You add money to your account when you provide other people with goods and services. You lose money when you spend it on goods or services. You need to always make sure that you have enough money in your account to cover your spending.” The lesson is clear, and the exact countability of money – and the amorphous nature of self-esteem counters – is irrelevant for understanding this basic idea.

I think that Rick Lavoie unfairly limits his idea to self-esteem, instead of expanding his talk to cover all emotional relationships. Every relationship can be seen as stacks of poker chips, where each side needs to consider how many chips they have to “spend”. If you are in a relationship with someone and you have never done anything for them, you cannot ask them for any special favors – you don’t have any “chips” in that relationship balance. This feeling would easily be expressed as “I don’t owe you that”, and is easier understood when we see all relationships as requiring an emotional balance which can be drawn against.

Lavoie gives an example in his talk of a father who puts down his difficult kid every morning, which he describes as taking away his self-esteem “chips”, which the kid needed to get through the rest of the day. In this example, there is another type of “chip” which the kid does not have – those chips which represent his connection to his father. The father wants something from his kid, but the account is empty, because every morning he takes “chips” away by putting the boy down, instead of increasing his balance by providing a pleasant and reassuring morning schedule. The father presumably expects his son’s devotion as part of the natural order, and will never understand how nature became perverted and his son grew up hating him. The hatred would just be the natural reflection of a badly overdrawn emotional account, and would be exacerbated by the fact that this emotional account is the most important one to keep in surplus.

Self-esteem is probably the most important emotional “account” because it is the one we draw against ourselves. Whenever we want to take a chance in life, we need to invest the self-esteem chips, as Lavoie describes. Lavoie talks about it as “self-esteem chips”, but it is more correctly the self-esteem balance. The currency of the account is emotional capital. We lose emotional capital from the self-esteem account – from our own personal emotional store – when bad or unpleasant things happen to us, and when we do things that we do not want to do.

The same emotional capital is kept in balances for all our relationships. We have neighbors we speak to occasionally. That is a low-balance account. We exchange pleasantries and will do occasional favors, but don’t expect anything big from each other. We have the people we deal with every day. We expect more from them, and invest more effort in generating more emotional capital between ourselves. We have close friends, with whom we have built up over the years a very significant stock of emotional capital, and we expect to be able to draw on that if one day we need a really, really big favor, and we likewise expect to extend such a favor if they will us ask us for it.

When an emotional balance goes too low, we act as Lavoie describes. We will either be reckless with the relationship, or we will be very hesitant to invest in it, hoping to preserve what little there is. Either way the relationship cannot survive without an infusion of emotional capital from the other side, which will justify the demands of emotional capital which they are making on us.

Someone who is unattuned to the balances of their relationships will overdraw them, exactly as people will spend too much when they do not look at their bank account balance. People will often not realize how much they are taking, emotionally, from the other side in the relationship, and then when they are rebuffed one day they cannot understand why. More often people will take the relationship for granted and not build up the emotional capital they will need later. (In marriage in particular there is a different problem, that people try very hard to build up the emotional capital in the relationship, but they fail to understand the relationship dynamics, so all their effort leave them drained of emotional capital, but the joint account is also empty.)

Often the emotional cost of what we do for another is completely subjective, and depends on how much we care about the relationship. Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, and they were in his eyes as a few days, so much did he love her. He did not focus on how much he was investing, and justify such a massive investment because he cared enough about her. If he had considered the magnitude of the investment, and maybe even magnified it because of all the future uncertainties, he would have done it anyway, but then they would have begun their relationship with an empty emotional account. Instead he looked at it as a minor investment, because his love for her justified ranking seven years of work as a completely reasonable effort.

The biggest mistake anyone can make in a relationship is to think that the emotional connection can be taken for granted, as part of the relationship description. It is romantic to think that emotions are too strong and too special to be assigned a number, or to think of them as something that can get used up. The romantic thoughts will not build a relationship, and will not save it when the other side feels emotionally overdrawn. Having a bank account does not let you spend freely, and having a relationship does not grant you unlimited expectations.

The Jewish Marriage – The Begining of the Jewish Family

Look at the marriage of the Jew! It is not gallantry, flirtation, and delusive romance that join the hearts and hands of Jewish husbands and wives. When man and wife unite, they do so in full awareness of the sober realities of their married lives, and for the purpose of living by those realities. Their love is based on their inspired eagerness to fulfill life’s duties together, and on the desire of each to enhance the happiness of the other. That is why the longer they are married the more they will love each other, and the consecration of their lives grows only deeper as they go through life’s vicissitudes together. Their wedding is not the pinnacle of their lives; it is only their springtime when their first love begins to grow. Subsequent years only add links to the chain that bind their hearts and spirits together forever.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Collected Writings vol. II, Kislev VI, p. 264